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Creating a project plan from scratch is a bit of a chore, but it can be done efficiently. The best way to go about it is to build it out as you’re planning the project itself. 

In this article, you’ll get our 10 steps for how to create a project plan from scratch, along with expert tips for doing it efficiently and effectively. 

What Is A Project Plan?

Project plans are documents outlining the scope of the project, project objectives, and project schedule for a specific project. 

Plans are completed in the project planning phases of the project life cycle. They act as a roadmap and provide clear direction and expectations on what needs to be done, when it needs to be done by, and who is responsible for each task. 

You’ll be consulting with your team, project stakeholders, and project sponsors throughout the process of creating a project plan, and keep in mind that you’ll be referring back to the plan throughout the project and updating or tweaking it as needed as things change (and they will change).

What Format Should A Project Plan Be In?

Your project plan might be presented as a roadmap or Gantt chart, made in Smartsheet, Microsoft Project, or a similar alternative planning tool. 

Your Gantt chart or project timeline might also be part of a larger written document that includes sections like an executive summary or scope statement.  

Specific file formats might include Excel spreadsheets or a Google Sheet, as well as a Word Document, Google Doc, or PDF.

If you need a template, find out how to get our project plan template here.

Why Are Project Plans Important?

There are seven key reasons why project plans are one of the most important pieces of documentation.

A project plan will:

  1. Clarify the process and activities that will lead to the project’s outputs and deliverables
  2. Provide information to estimate properly and define outputs and project scope
  3. Enable you to visualize the entire project and see interdependencies between project tasks
  4. Help with resource management and show who does what task when, helping forecast your resource requirements
  5. Provide milestones to track progress against (and timeframes and dates for client approvals)
  6. Enable you to baseline and track your project progress properly
  7. Enable agreement on the all-important live date

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How To Create A Project Plan

The process of creating a project plan goes hand in hand with the process of actually planning the project. Each step of the way, add your notes, findings, and further questions to your document.

Before you get started on creating the project plan, you need to understand the project’s brief—what you’re trying to achieve. Without understanding the project goal, there’s no way to deliver on it. At a minimum, you need to be clear on:

  1. Why? The project’s strategic goals.
  2. What? The activities (or process), outputs, project deliverables, project budget, project risks, and metrics and KPIs.
  3. When? The deadlines and dependencies.
  4. How? The process or methodology.
  5. Who? The client and their team of stakeholders.

Where do you get this information? Usually, a good project kickoff meeting will help us produce a proper project brief. You’ll also need to consult the project charter and/or statement of work. If you don’t ultimately understand why you’re doing a project, you can end up barking up the wrong tree. 

You might not focus the resources on our project as well as you could. You might include activities that are redundant, or you might produce some outputs which aren’t useful.

Once you’re clear on the why, what, when, how, and who of a project, you can start putting together your project plan. Here’s how to create a simple project plan.

1. Define The Workflow

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Make a rough plan. Sketch out the overall flow of your project from initiation to project execution to completion. Map out each project phase and the likely activities and tasks required in each phase to complete the project.

When creating a project plan, the temptation can sometimes be to dive straight into your project planning tool or project management tool and add in all the tasks that need to get done. 

But before you add in specific tasks and project milestones, make sure you get the overall project structure right. This means first defining the workflow and what the different phases of the project will be.

2. Establish The Planning Horizon

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Are you being realistic? Work out how far you can accurately plan ahead. Plan in detail only for what you know, and make generous allowances for the rest of the project so you don’t over-commit yourself and your team.

A planning horizon is the amount of time that it’s feasible and viable to forecast into the future when preparing a project plan. 

In general, the length of the planning horizon is dictated by the degree of uncertainty in the external environment: the higher the uncertainty, the shorter the planning horizon. 

It might not be at all feasible to plan out the whole project in detail, so plan in detail only for what you know, in the phase that you’re in, and make generous allowances for the rest of the project.

3. Break It Down

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Get into the details. Break the project phases and tasks down into small sub-tasks, no longer than a few days each. It makes it easier to identify if any steps are missing, and easier for your team to estimate.

With the work management process established, the planning horizon defined, the high-level planning needs to start to become more detailed—it needs to be broken down into as many small sub-tasks as possible. 

You might also create a work breakdown structure (WBS) in this part of the project planning process.

4. Ask, Don’t Guess

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Don’t make it up yourself. Give your team the context, a rough number to start with, and help them collaborate on estimating properly. Share assumptions, dependencies, and work out who can do what, when.

When you’re under pressure to produce a project plan, the easiest thing to do is to guess how long each of these constituent parts might take to complete. That’s an option, but not a particularly clever one. 

Guessing will not only just give you a plan filled with poor timing, it’ll give you no foundation for discussions with the client, and there’ll be no one else to share the blame if you guesstimate incorrectly.

5. Question When Questioning

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When your team gives you an estimate, keep asking ‘why’ and ‘how’ to help them think through their approach, identify any efficiency opportunities and ensure you understand what’s included.

Beyond just asking someone to estimate how long something is going to take, you need to help them understand the context around their estimation. It’s no good just asking someone how long something will take in isolation. 

As they provide you with task time estimates, exercise curiosity and work with team members to determine how they came to the number. 

You’ll often find that as you begin to tease out the details of their estimation, they’ll begin to think of elements that they forgot to include and you’ll begin to get an understanding of dependencies around individual tasks.

6. Allow Time For Changes

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Changes to a project are inevitable. Make time for review and change cycles, both internally and with clients and each key stakeholder.

One thing often missed in creating a project plan is allowing time for review and change cycles. Changes to a project are inevitable and they are not an indicator of poor project management or poor planning. 

Clients like to change things, and put their mark on a project. So no matter how closely you think you’re aligned with your client on a project, you need to allow for changes. But watch out for scope creep!

7. Plan For It Not Going To Plan

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Projects rarely go to plan. Simply planning for the best case scenario or Plan A, isn’t good enough—you need to bake in Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C too.

Planning out the final phases of a project can appear to be some of the most straightforward—finish it off and just get it live! 

However, the final stages of a project can be the most complex as dependencies are fully realized. Having a proper plan in place helps make sure everything can be deployed live and that the project is properly closed.

8. Finish Well

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Finishing projects properly can be a tricky business. Make a robust plan and allow ample time for the closing phases of your project as you load content, QA, test, get approvals, make DNS changes, and deploy to production.

Planning out the final phases of a project can appear to be some of the most straightforward—finish it off and just get it live! 

However, the final stages of a project can be the most complex as dependencies are fully realized. Having a proper plan in place helps make sure everything can be deployed live and that the project is properly closed.

9. Post-Project Review & Optimization

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Going live isn’t the end of the project. Build a phase into the project plan for post-live testing and analysis to measure performance, make any optimizations required, and take note of all lessons learned.

One of the most overlooked parts of a project is what happens when it’s gone live. In the euphoria and excitement of delivering a project, scheduling the effective close of a project is sometimes overlooked. 

All too often a project plan will end with a single milestone, the project live date. While a project might be live, it’s not over. In fact, the end of the first phase of a project should really just be signaling the start of the next phase.

10. Milestones & Baselines

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Keep your project on track using milestones so that the project team and client are clear about key dates. Monitor project status using baselines to keep tracking your progress against your original project plan.

In order to help you keep track of whether or not your project is running on schedule, make sure your project includes key milestones and opportunities to celebrate incremental success. 

Using milestones ensure that when the project starts, the project team and the client are clear about the key dates the project needs to hit to stay on track.

Tips For Creating A Project Management Plan

Before you dive in, remember these important points about project plans:

  1. A project plan should be much more than a roadmap. To give a client a complete view of a project, it should be combined with an estimate and a statement of work too.
  2. Proper project planning isn’t difficult, but it does take time. And it’s not a one-time thing. You create a plan and then continually refine it.
  3. Get more out of your project plan by presenting it. Don’t waste all of your effort making something that only you’ll see. Get more out of it by turning it into a presentation for clients so that they can better understand the limitations and scope of the work. It’ll also help them understand if the proposed work will deliver what they want and if the process you’re proposing will get the results they’re paying for.
  4. Pair it with a communication plan. While the project plan doesn’t necessarily cover things like how often status reports will be updated, meetings cadence, or which channels a particular stakeholder prefers to communicate through, these are the types of things you need to consider. A communication plan is the place for this!

What’s Next?

Now that you know how to create a good project plan using the above project planning steps, you’re equipped to start building it out! Once you’ve got your plan in place, it’s time to add all those tasks with start dates, due dates, and end dates into your project management software or Kanban boards, and then start assigning tasks according to your RACI chart

Remember: it’s not as much work as it seems like once you break it down into our 10 simple steps. What are you waiting for? You’re on your way to a successful project!

For more tips on project planning and other key processes in project management, subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter.

By Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of I've been in the industry for more than 20 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony. Ben's a Certified Scrum Master, PRINCE2 Practitioner and productivity nut.

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